William & Mary Law Professor Investigates Judicial Ethics Complaint on Behalf of Federal Courts

  • Professor Jeffrey Bellin
    Professor Jeffrey Bellin  In August 2013 a three-judge Special Committee appointed Bellin as Special Counsel to investigate a misconduct complaint filed against a prominent federal judge.  Photo by Gretchen Bedell
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An ethics complaint filed against a sitting federal judge received national attention in June 2013.  As recounted at the time in the New York Times:

"A group of civil rights organizations and legal ethicists filed a complaint of misconduct against a senior federal judge on Tuesday, alleging that recent remarks of hers showed bias against minority groups and an inappropriate religious belief in the death penalty.  The complaint, against Judge Edith H. Jones of Houston, who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, asserts that at a speech at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in February she said that blacks and Hispanics were more prone than others to commit violent crimes and that a death sentence was a service to defendants because it allowed them to make peace with God."

The complaint, initially lodged with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, was transferred to the D.C. Circuit by Chief Justice John Roberts.  The Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit then appointed a three-judge "Special Committee" to investigate the allegations.  As explained in the Special Committee's subsequent opinion,

"[T]he Committee appointed Jeffrey Bellin, Associate Professor of Law at William & Mary Law School, as Special Counsel to the Committee to investigate the Complaint's factual allegations. . . .  After completing his investigation, the  Special Counsel prepared a report, which he submitted to the Special Committee."   In re Charges of Judicial Misconduct, 769 F.3d 762, 764 (D.C. Cir. 2014).

After considering Professor Bellin's report and other evidence, the Special Committee recommended, in a 71-page opinion, that the Complaint be dismissed.  The D.C. Circuit Judicial Council unanimously adopted the Special Committee recommendation and ordered that the Special Committee's report be made an appendix to its order and "released to the public."

After the Complainants appealed the August 2014 ruling of the Judicial Council, the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability, a national body of federal judges that is the final level of review for judicial ethics complaints, unanimously affirmed the Judicial Council's ruling.  In so doing, the Committee issued a second published opinion, dated February 2015 that, again, highlighted Professor Bellin's thorough investigation of the allegations in the complaint.

The complaint and its resolution were covered in numerous media outlets across the country.  Writing on his blog, United States District Court Judge Richard Kopf discussed the opinion and "Professor Bellin's searching investigation":

"The work of the Special Committee and Professor Jeffrey Bellin makes me proud to be a federal judge. The clarity, tone, thoroughness and objectivity which is evident in the Report of the Special Committee is remarkable."

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